I heard the school bus pull to a stop in front of our house as I put a kettle of potatoes on the stove. My five-year-old had been standing at the large living room window for the last half hour, watching for her big sister. She shouted, “Niki’s home!” A moment later I heard the back-door slam and my fourth-grader walked into the dining room.
“How was your day?” I asked.
My daughter shrugged and gave me the usual before supper non-committal answer, “It was okay.”
The events of Niki’s day would slowly unreel as the evening progressed. She was never able to pour it out all at one time, so it didn’t pay to push.
By the time I was doing the supper dishes, Niki had told me about a math test she’d taken in the morning, who she played with at recess and what was served at hot lunch. The way my daughter leaned against the cupboards watching me clean the kitchen made it clear she wanted to say more.
Looking troubled, Niki finally said, “We had a class on fire safety this afternoon.” I turned to face her. Every fall the school taught the children what to do if their homes were to catch fire. Along with the knowledge came worry.
Niki spoke quickly, as if she’d rehearsed the words, “They said we should have a fire escape plan.”
I nodded and said, “Yes. The smoke alarm is just outside your bedroom and I test it regularly. If it starts to beep, you get out of the house as fast as you can.
At last ready to share her fear, Niki blurted, “What if the alarm goes off and there’s too much smoke or fire for Tammie and me to use the stairs? I need to have a fire ladder to hook on our bedroom window. You know I’m the one that will be helping Tammie escape from the house!”
Niki was protective of her little sister. She knew that with Tammie’s short arms and legs braces, she would never be able to use a ladder on her own. The urgent sense of responsibility I heard in my daughter’s voice that night made me want to cry.
We had a family plan to meet outside near the mountain ash tree if there was a fire. Niki and Tammie knew that if there was a lot of smoke, they were to crawl because the air closer to the floor would be easier to breath. The school handed out silver reflective stickers to put on the children’s bedroom door frame. When firemen search homes, they would know to especially check the stickered room for little ones.
When the children were small, the mere thought of a fire starting during the night made me break into a nervous sweat. My bedroom is on one side of the house and theirs is on the other side. Even if I had a window ladder for Niki to use, I doubted that my nine-year-old was strong enough to push open one of the windows in her room. If she did manage to do that and I showed her, would she remember how to lift out the old-fashioned metal window screen?
This fall when daylight savings ended the first week of November, radio announcers reminded people to not only turn back their clocks, but also to check their smoke alarms. As always, I remembered the fear Niki experienced every year during grade school after their fire safety classes. It was a fear that I secretly shared with her. It wasn’t unwarranted.
In second grade one of my classmates told me about a sister she’d lost to fire. The little girl was making oatmeal on the stove while her parents were in the barn. When her nightgown caught fire, the young child didn’t know to stop, drop and roll. The burns she suffered while running to get help were fatal. Fire safety wasn’t taught to children back then. Such a simple thing could have saved her life.